LOCAL PROFILE: Reverend Gerard Goshawk

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

Reverend Gerard Goshawk has been a Baptist minister for “probably about 18 years.” Working first as a lay pastor, he became a full time pastor 13 years ago – finding his way to Six Ways Baptist Church after coming “from Nottingham, and it’s been brilliant. I love Erdington.”

But the ‘new normal’ created by the coronavirus crisis has established new ways of working, socialising, and even worshipping – as everywhere from classrooms to congregations have been subject to physical and social distancing restrictions.

Reverend Goshawk’s working week before lockdown “was a different rhythm. It was more based with things happening up at Six Ways Baptist Church. The different groups, activities we had there, being around for those, and visiting people – and lots of meetings, meetings, meetings! Lots of worship based at the church, and (the Erdington) foodbank based at the church.”

An important part of the community, the Erdington Foodbank is based at Six Ways Baptist Church – providing ‘three days nutritionally balanced emergency food and support to local people who are referred to us in crisis.’

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Trussell Trust – who support the Erdington Foodbank – have seen usage across their UK network increase by 89% from April 2019 to April 2020. For Reverend Goshawk, his active role helping the people who need access to food has become even more pertinent.

Although reaching his congregation was also a concern, as places of worship across the country were completely closed during the coronavirus lockdown. “It’s been a big learning process,” explains Reverend Goshawk, as social media became the most viable method of communication with people in self-isolation.

We have a service on YouTube that we pre-record for each Sunday, that goes out… I do some Daily devotions on Facebook live each day and I send them out on a WhatsApp list as well. That’s Monday to Friday.

Then, we also have a zoom fellowship – a service on a Sunday where most people that can do that get together. That’s been really great and we’ve kinda adapted to how we do that.”

Excited by the prospect of this new normal, Reverend Goshawk notes that “there’s statistics out there about people who have not done church before but are watching church services online. There’s a whole new field of people out there who are being reached, and in our small way, Erdington is part of that.”

But while he can’t yet meet his congregation at church, Reverend Goshawk still goes out to members where they live – spending a lot of his time “cycling round Erdington, delivering news sheets, written information for people as well… because we have… 25 people in our church not connected on the Internet.”

There’s even a chance for prayer, as Reverend Goshawk finds himself “sometimes praying with people on their doorstep… 2 meters away.”

Places of worship are now set to open for private prayer in England from the 15th June, and Reverend Goshawk is preparing for “coming out of lockdown, as of next week. We’ll be able to open up for people to come in just for quiet prayer, socially distanced and everything.”

But like many businesses and social groups in the UK, Six Ways Baptist Church has seen how some engagements are actually better off being at least partly conducted online.

We wouldn’t want to be losing all the new things that we’ve done,” tells Reverend Goshawk, “because we are reaching different people in different ways, you know.

Sometimes I used to do a bible study for a very small number of people who would turn up on a Sunday evening at the church – on a cold winter’s evening, about four faithful people perhaps sometimes just turning up. And now we’re in double figures every time and growing with the number of people that will come to bible study [via zoom].

I believe we’re made by God to connect with each other and to be alongside each other. I think we will still do lots of things online. It would be a shame to lose that experience and that benefit that we had. It just means a bit more work!”

Outside of the coronavirus crisis, and the changes Reverend Goshawk has made to stay in touch with his immediate community, Six Ways Baptist Church has received recognition for its hard work helping migrants and asylum seekers.

Reverend Goshawk is also the chair of the group Everyone Erdington, which celebrates diversity, and in the past has organised “get togethers”, lunches, and festivals specifically inviting people from different backgrounds. And whilst institutionalised racism is a constant concern, affecting communities worldwide, following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota people and protest have risen up across the globe in solidarity.

Our church at six ways is a black majority church,” explains Reverend Goshawk. “I don’t really feel equipped to speak on behalf of people that would identify themselves as black. But the response has been deep… actually looking at the practical ways that we as a church can make a difference for ourselves and for this community to actually be part of that transformation.

That exciting change that seems to be out there as a possibility at the moment. There’s a whole range of feelings about it. One of those, the more positive thing about it, there’s a move that’s happening. It does feel like there’s potential for real change.”

Reverend Gerard Goshawk is pastor at Six Ways Baptist Church. To find out more about the church, visit: www.sixwayserdington.org.uk

For more on the Everyone Erdington Facebook group, visit: www.facebook.com/EveryoneErdington

For more on the Erdington Foodbank, including information on how to access provision or to make a donation, visit: www.erdington.foodbank.org.uk

OPINION: Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation.”

I was spellbound by the thousands of people who gathered in Birmingham for the Black Lives Matter protest. There were people of all ages and races. There were children, and even a few pet dogs. It was in response to George Floyd’s death – which has caused shockwaves in cities around the world. I was proud to be there for Birmingham’s show of solidarity.

Initially, it was a scary experience. On my way to Birmingham Library, where the speeches took place, I was handed a slip of paper from an organiser with ‘advice on arrest’. I became anxious as the crowds gathered momentum – lest we forget, there is also the possibility of being infected with coronavirus.

But the intention of this protest was noble.

People chanted in full voice: “George Floyd, remember his name!” organically, along with other slogans. There were signs containing anti-establishment messages, messages of hope – some tongue-in-cheek, some with wise quotations. The one that resonated with me was the powerful, ‘They want our rhythm not our blues.’ As a musician, I believe that a vast amount of popular music owes a lot to talented, pioneering yet anonymous, often intentionally uncredited, black musicians. And as a white musician, I believe we stole their music but we didn’t alleviate their sorrow.

By chance, I spotted some people I know from Erdington. Pastor Rasaq Ibrahim from the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) joyfully handed me a free face mask, before disappearing into the crowd to give more to strangers.

Feeling fully equipped, having brought my vinyl gloves and voice recorder, I joined the crowd outside the library to hear passionate speakers selected by the Black Lives Matter group using a portable PA, often doubled with a megaphone. It was only audible if you were very close to the action, but people were happy to start chants in their own pockets of activity. I caught most of the speeches, with various speakers commending the multi-ethnicity of the crowd, the fact that this protest cannot be the last, and getting the crowd to kneel as a gesture of solidarity.

The fight is not black verses white; the fight is not black verses Asian. The fight is not black verses any race. The fight is against racists,” one speaker sermonised, followed by rapturous applause.

A couple of hours later, we marched, from Centenary Square, along New Street, to protest symbolically in front of the Lloyd House Police Headquarters.

An acquaintance of mine spotted me in the crowd. Like all the following speakers, she is black and wishes to remain anonymous. She is from Castle Vale: “Everyone’s out here. Black, white, Indian. Fighting for the same cause. It’s like the most peaceful protest I’ve ever been to. The message is clear. All anybody wants to have is an enjoyable life, and some people are robbing them of that.

Me personally, I feel like Black Lives Matter is inclusive to everyone as well. As far as I’m concerned, the police in America might as well be a terrorist organisation. The George Floyd incident was filmed, but it’s like, this has been going on for decades. This protest is saying, stop it. Just stop.”

I too had fear that this day would not remain peaceful, having seen the news of tear gas and looting in America. Trump’s response was to threaten to send in the army to cease the unrest, yet here in Birmingham I see an army of well-meaning citizens mobilizing to bring positive change.

One man, from Moseley, tells me: “As you can see, everybody’s behaving and respecting. Not many police officers. In general, I’m quite blown away because also, nobody with grey hairs like us! The majority of people are under 30. It’s mixed like hell mate! Proper mixed… It’s been an excellent day, a great day.”

We stopped our conversation to admire the marching crowd as it circled around Colmore Circus. Buses had come to a stand-still, and cars sounded their horns as they drove by in solidarity.

This is different from every other one [protest] because it’s worldwide. And it’s unfortunate that the people who commit the crime are telling other people to be peaceful!”

Another male I knew from Erdington was a little more sceptical of the speakers present at the protest: “to be honest, I think it’s just a façade. There was no direction on the mic in what they were saying. There were people on the mic saying: ‘if you’re not down with XYZ then you’re not XYZ’.”

Black Lives Matter itself as an organisation is not without its criticisms. It has been accused of being militaristic, police-hating, and has had a history of confrontation in the public domain – a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and writer, Shaun King, was banned from Facebook in 2016. Although King’s censorship was later redacted by the social media giant and labelled ‘a mistake’.

But whilst agitation can be seen as an important part in evolving debate, it can also lead to messages getting blown out of proportion in a media frenzy – a difficult balance no doubt Black Lives Matter, and many activist groups, will be all too familiar with. And if you need an example of how this can go wrong, just Google ‘Katie Hopkins’.

But the response to the George Floyd murder, for that’s what it is, has been the most recent flashpoint of a whole history of anti-human abuse. Black lives do matter, and as offensive as it is to even need an organisation to clarify that the conversation about race needs to be kept alive, by everyone.

And personally, from my corner of the crowd and community, it was important for me to be part of this historic event in my own city. And as a musician, and a human being, I can only pray that finally a change is going to come.

For more on Black Lives Matter, visit www.blacklivesmatter.com

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is an Erdington based musician and arts ambassador, leading the Erdington Arts Forum and the Active Arts Evenings of Creativity. For more on Jobe Baker Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/JobeSullivanMusic

For more on the Erdington Arts Forum, visit www.facebook.com/groups/cafeartsforum/

FEATURE: “I don’t think I would have survived the lockdown without my volunteering,” – Erdington local woman’s cry for more community support

Words by Steve Sharma / Pics courtesy of Erdington Local Community Response

A local woman helping an Erdington community support group to deliver food and essential supplies, and safeguard elderly and vulnerable residents, says volunteering has saved her life.

Donna Tone said her experience working alongside Mutual Aid Group, Erdington Local Community Response, has helped her to survive the lockdown.

At the start of Volunteers Week (June 1-7) the primary school worker is now urging others to follow her example and reap the ‘amazing’ benefits it brings.

“Should people volunteer? Absolutely,” she said. “Because you are not only doing good for others but for yourself too. My self-esteem and confidence have increased massively since I started volunteering and I’ve made some amazing friends and met some lovely people.e 

“At the beginning of the lockdown I felt very isolated with my family living far away from me – but my volunteering has changed that. I now feel uplifted as a person. I don’t think I would have survived the lockdown without my volunteering – it saved me.” 

Donna, who has spent the last three months helping to pack and distribute food parcels from a base in Ladywood, points to the collective efforts and unity of those working to support those in need.

“It’s like your own little community,” she said.

“One minute you’ve got these strangers standing behind you, the next minute they’re becoming your friends. 

“You just start talking to people and form connections, everyone is there to help each other, they are invested in the collective effort. Everyone is united.” 

Erdington Local Community Response was founded by local woman Jo Bull. It has been delivering hundreds of food parcels every week to homes across the district and supporting people through befriending services and via social media with information and resources shared on its Facebook page.

David Owen, who co-ordinates activity for the group, said the support it has received has been ‘eye-watering’ but with certain lockdown measures now being eased and people returning to their day jobs, volunteers are needed to sustain the help that’s being delivered to people.

“The take up of volunteers in Erdington has been immense with over 70 people giving up their time to pack, shop and deliver for those in need,” he said.

“But as these people return to work, we need a new wave of volunteers to get us through the weeks and months ahead. 

“So, if anyone out there, who lives in the North Birmingham area, can spare some time to help our group over the coming weeks we’d really love to hear from them. Please email me at: erdingtoncv19@gmail.com” 

Erdington Local Community Response is a member of the Erdington COVID19 Taskforce – a network of local community organisations and individuals working together to support the district’s vulnerable, isolated and at risk during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Taskforce is facilitated by Witton Lodge Community Association. Chief Officer, Afzal Hussain, commented: “Volunteers are the lifeblood of organisations like ours and their efforts across the constituency in support of organisations like Erdington Local Community Response has been truly inspiring. 

“We have also benefited from their incredible and selfless work in getting food parcels packed and delivered to the most vulnerable members of our community during the lockdown.

“Without their support a lot of the work that has been achieved would not have been possible. We are all very grateful to every single one of our amazing volunteers.”

To visit the Erdington Local Community Response (to COVID-19) Facebook group, where you ask for help and support during the coronavirus crisis – or offer your services as a volunteer, visit www.facebook.com/groups/625073991557017

A directory of all Erdington COVID19 Taskforce organisations can be found by visiting: www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19-local-support

Volunteers’ Week runs across the UK from 1st to 7th June – for more information, visit www.volunteersweek.org

FEATURE: Death and social distancing – the grief of funerals during lockdown

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

The UK’s funeral industry is estimated to be worth around £2billion annually, with an estimated 4,000 directors conducting 600,000 funerals each year at an average of £3-5000 per service. Britain’s death economy is big business.

But honouring the dead is also paramount for people’s mental health and society’s social fabric – a respectable funeral is a helpful step in the grieving process, allowing people to say goodbye to loved ones whilst offering the emotional sanctuary of a traditional service.

During the COVID-19 crisis, however, funerals have taken on an even more sombre tone, as death tolls rise whilst places of worship across the country have been closed to stem the spread of the virus – building a backlog that has seen some funerals held weeks, even months, later than normal.

Along with the Government restrictions being imposed on funerals of all faiths, whatever your beliefs the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the way this vital part of human society is carried out.

As someone who would play the church organ at funerals pre-coronavirus, sometimes three times a week, I was interested in exploring the drastic changes people now face during this important part of the grieving process.

It feels like their bereavement is suspended,” says Father Simon Ellis, the parish priest at St Margaret Mary’s Church on Perry Common Road, who has officiated over six funerals since the start of lockdown – unable to make two, as he was recovering from coronavirus himself.

It’s been agonising… It feels like people have said, you go, I’ll stay at home. The overwhelming thing I’ve heard is that ‘they deserve more’… Normally there would be 50, 60, 150 people at the church or the crematorium. Now we can only have six,” the maximum number of mourners allowed, at that time, according to Birmingham City Council.

And if someone has died of COVID-19,” continues Father Ellis, “people are not permitted to see their loved ones in the funeral parlour. They’re not permitted to touch the coffin. It’s something that will have people struggling with their mental health.”

The Government guidelines have been put in place so that ‘mourners and workers involved in the management of funerals are protected from infection,’ according to the .Gov website. But this has caused anguish for many families, with some having to make tough decisions about who attends the funeral of a loved one and who does not.

But despite the hardships during lockdown Father Ellis has noted, “generally families seem to be sticking to the rules… All the families have been saying there will be something at a later date – whether that’s a memorial mass, a memorial service, or something followed by a proper reception. There are plans for the future.

I feel genuine sorrow for people. Whether they’ve lost a person through COVID-19 or some other reason, they’ve been hurled into this new world…

It is very hard to experience this extra burden people are carrying. But it’s also remarkable how resilient and high-spirited people are being.”

The coronavirus crisis has also seen ingenuity, as people embrace digital platforms to combat the widespread physical restrictions. “Perry Barr Crematorium did have a system where they could relay the service outside,” tells Father Ellis – explaining a shift in how the funeral is conducted which allows more people to gather outside of the chapel area.

Some funerals are also being livestreamed for the benefit of those who can’t be attend in person, and Father Ellis has taken on the challenge: “[livestreaming] has always happened, but now there are more people are involved. What you’re trying to do in the service, which I’ve never done before is start at the beginning of the service is saying ‘if you’re following remotely, you are most welcome, we are thinking of you’. It’s just something to say, ‘we know you’re there.’”

But for all those who are grieving during the coronavirus crisis, it has been a whirlwind experience; as if losing a loved one wasn’t difficult already, not being able to have a conventional funeral has been a great shock to many mourners.

Steve Lafferty, who lives on Lambeth Road in Kingstanding, lost his brother, Charles, on the 4th April after a seven year battle to cancer. Under normal circumstances, there would have been a ‘receiving in’ ceremony the evening before the funeral, wherein the coffin of the deceased remains in church, St Margaret Mary’s, overnight.

We’d have liked him (Charles) to go to church first, to St Margaret Mary’s,” explains Steve, “for the overnight, and then the service… then the funeral mass, in the church, then up to the crematorium for a little service there.

We’d have had the hymns in church… he wanted certain songs, his kids wanted certain songs, so we’d kept them for the crematorium. But because we couldn’t get to church we give them the songs that they wanted, that my brother wanted, to go out there.”

Part of a strong Scottish family, Charles Lafferty had many mourners wishing to pay their final respects. But with the numbers of attendees restricted, the family he left behind found themselves – like many across the country – having to make some difficult logistical decisions.

He had six grandchildren, so the eldest grandchildren were to go,” tells Steve, crunching the numbers usually reserved for a wedding planner – Sandwell Crematorium, where Charles was cremated, are allowing a maximum of 10 mourners at each service. “Then his three children, his three brothers – his son’s partner, she came. But then my wife came, my other’s brother’s wife came…”

They were quite good actually at Sandwell, they gave us a link,” continues Steve – explaining the digital streaming service Sandwell Crematorium were able to offer, “because I’ve got relations in Scotland and all that there, and they said the link was very good as well.

They give us a code to put in – they set it up straight away, then told us – in a few weeks time – to just click here and it will automatically go through. It was really good. Where the camera was you had the coffin, the priest, the people that were there… it was really, really good.”

For Charles Lafferty, his funeral was to be well and widely remembered – despite all the coronavirus roadblocks now in front of a regular procession. But fortitude deserves fanfare, and whilst working within the Government guidelines the family were still able to say goodbye in their own way.

I went down to the undertakers, Unwins on Rough Road,” explains Steve, “they said look Mr Lafferty, with the circumstances we’re in you can only have this, this, or this… no cars, only a hearse. And because we’re Scots we had a bagpiper performing.

So, what we did… where I live on Lamberth Road… I told all his friends to come, but they must keep social distancing all along the road. Don’t go to the crem, but do it along the road outside my house – and then the bagpiper played him up to my house.

The three bothers and his family there, we walked in front and others walked behind, all the way up. Then they stayed outside my house for about five minutes for anyone who wanted to come up to touch the coffin – it was the only time anyone was allowed to touch the coffin – then I went down in front… You had the bagpiper, me, the lady from Unwins, and the coffin then followed me down the road and we were off to Sandwell (Cremetorium).

I can’t knock Sandwell, and I can’t knock my undertakers down the road, especially under the circumstances. They were very, very good.”

For more information on how ‘births, deaths, and ceremonies’ are being conducted across Birmingham during the coronavirus crisis, visit www.birmingham.gov.uk/info/20016/births_deaths_and_ceremonies

For Government guidelines on ‘managing a funeral during the coronavirus pandemic’, visit www.gov.uk/covid-19-guidance-for-managing-a-funeral-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic

For more from Unwins Undertakers, visit www.urwinsundertakers.co.uk

For more on St Margaret Mary’s Church, visit www.birminghamdiocese.org.uk/st-margaret-mary-perry-common

NEWS: Jump the queues (and language barriers) for Erdington essentials at Janosik

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Jobe Baker-Sullivan and Ed King

Queues on Erdington High Street are now an all too familiar sight, as shops encourage social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many Eastern European shops, however, remain accessible without too much queueing – stocking an abundance of the basic necessities that supermarkets now sometimes lack.

Janosik, situated at 203 High Street in Erdington, is a grocery store that caters for the Polish community. There is a queue outside, but not for this ‘polski sklep’ (polish shop): it’s for Lloyds bank next door.

Full of food, drink, and household essentials, Erdington Local explores the shelves at Janosik – one of Erdington’s many polish shops where a language barrier might be the only thing slowing down your shopping.

Bread (chleb) is found at the back of the store – fresh, sliced, and easy to spot. Polish people also like to make their own bread and pastries, and there’s a large selection of wheat flour (mąka, the ą gives it a sound more like ‘monka’) on the shelves at Janosik – a staple that’s been disappearing from supermarkets across the region, as many people have begun baking at home during lockdown.

Pasta is also in abundance – specialties, as well as simple ‘farfalle’ priced 400g for 99p.

For milk (mleko), the most common choice popular brand UHT Łaciate [pronounced ‘wa-chya-the’). But don’t get caught out by ‘kefir’ – it might look like normal milk from the packaging, but it’s more like a thin yoghurt that’s used in baking.

It’s good for a hangover!” chimes in Krystian, a helpful regular customer. Krystian visits the shop every couple of days for his basic amenities.

The beer is cheaper here than the Co-op,” he boasts, “and there’s a lovely selection of treats” pointing to the shelves of biscuits and chocolate.

Drworek is a brand of soup (zupa). “It’s like the Polish ready-meal,” says Krystian. Pomidorowa (tomato) and kapuśniak (cabbage) are easy to heat in the pan and serve 3-4 portions.

Most of the products in Janosik are Polish, with a small selection of Romanian items available at the back of the store – such as Zacuscă, a vegetable spread that goes nicely on that fresh chleb (bread).

But there are many basic household products that you can buy in Janosik, everyday essentials, that are all too familiar on shopping lists across Erdington. The shop also boasts a pharmacy, a fresh meat counter, and a variety of other foodstuffs.

Shopping at Janosik, and other Eastern European shops, in Erdington might be the perfect way to avoid those High Street queues – whilst supporting more of our local businesses during lockdown.

To find out more about Janosik, situated at 203 Erdington High Street, visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/JANOSIKSUPERSTORE/

For more about the Polish community across Birmingham, visit the Polish Expats Association at www.facebook.com/polish.expats

NEWS: Serving up 25% discounts for NHS workers at Walter Smith Fine Foods

Words by Keat Moore / Pics by Keat Moore and Ed King

Walter Smith Fine Foods has always been a familiar sight on Erdington High Street and has been serving generations of families from the community for the last 80 years.

It’s also one of the few butcher shops in the area to remain open during the COVID-19 lockdown, continuing its commitment to its customers by offering a free delivery service and a 25% discount for all NHS staff.

Erdington Local caught up with Mark Healy, the store manager, to find out more about the butcher’s life during the lockdown.

The first week was chaos,” says Mark, “we had loads of panic buying and fighting, we had to put limits in place, in the end, to stop customers trying to buy 50lbs of mince!”

Things have, thankfully, calmed down since then. But Mark says they’re still busy and they’ve even seen a 40% increase in sales, “we’ve actually won a lot of friends in this climate and we’re serving customers we’ve never seen before.

The uptick has primarily come from the delivery service that Walter Smith have been offering since the lockdown began; customers can call the shop, place an order, pay over the phone, and have fresh produce delivered to their door the following Friday.

It’s been really popular” Mark explains, “I think it took off really well due to the 2-3 week wait for online orders through the big supermarkets,” which has been a real issue for many vulnerable people across Erdington, as well as staff feeding residents of local care homes.

Walter Smith is also offering a 25% discount to all NHS staff, as a way of showing support and appreciation for the work they’re doing in the fight against COVID-19 – a gesture which has been especially popular in Erdington, as many of the Walter Smith regular customers are NHS workers.

Walter Smith Fine Foods is currently open Monday – Saturday, 8.30 am until 4.30 pm. For more information, visit www.waltersmith.co.uk or call 0121 373 0457

To find Walter Smith Fne Foods on Facebook, visit www.facebook.com/waltersmithff

NEWS: India Garden Restaurant gifts food parcels to over 60’s across Erdington

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

India Garden is a restaurant that prides itself on serving classic Indian dishes, specialties, and desserts.

Located at 992 Tyburn Road, India Garden Restaurant has been involved in catering for over 35 years – suppling large Council venues and supermarket chains, as well as operating their popular Erdington based restaurant.

But as the scare of COVID-19 was first hitting the country, the family run business began helping neighbours who were struggling to buy goods from supermarkets – using their own stock, alongside established links with their suppliers.

Now India Garden are delivering free food parcels to over 60’s in Erdington – packed with essential goods including hand sanitizer and loo rolls, as well as a hot meal from their own kitchens.

We’ve been here (in Erdington) for a long time and it’s the locals that have supported the business,” tells Shaan Deen, India Garden’s Operations Manager, “and we thought we’ve got to do something.

So, we thought, 60 plus, anybody, free of charge… we’re just going to give them food parcels with essential items – a hot meal, curry, rice, bread, and then all the hand sanitizers, loo rolls, baked beans… and whatever else we can. So that’s what we did.”

India Garden began telling existing customers about their ‘coronavirus campaign’ over the phone, but news of their good will soon gained a lot of attention on social media.

We threw it onto Facebook and it just blew up from there,” continues Shaan, “people started tagging, and we started getting lots of enquires. Genuinely they wanted to donate; I can give ₤100, I can give ₤50. And we said we don’t want your money, but we need the manpower – if you can come and help us deliver, then give us a shout.”

India Garden now have 72 volunteers helping them deliver care packages to around 211 people, with teams going out five days a week.

It wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers, from the local area,” continues Shaan. “People were saying ‘we only live up the road – we live in Castle Vale; we live on Paget Road…. And before we knew it, we’d gathered a lot of volunteers. I want to highlight that; the volunteers play a big part. They’re good people.”

The restaurant have also launched their ‘Tag a Hero’ campaign, encouraging social media followers to tag NHS workers – winning frontline staff a free, sumptuous, Indian meal, delivered to their door.

To find out more about India Garden Restaurant, who are still open for takeaway orders, visit www.indiagardenrestaurant.co.uk

Or visit the India Garden Facebook page, where you can ‘tag a hero’ and help NHS frontline workers win a free meal www.facebook.com/IndiaGardenBirmingham

FEATURE: Witton Lodge Community Association connects an isolated community via popular social media platforms

Words & pics by Ed King / Video by Paul Withers – Erdington Local Broadcast Unit

As part of their ongoing outreach activity during the coronavirus crisis, Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) are using social media platforms to reach out to people across their community.

Running support sessions via WhatsApp, Zoom, and Facebook Live, a team of trained support specialists are offering online advice on a range of social concerns – including health and wellbeing, employment, financial advice, and mental health, during self-isolation.

As part of the rolling programme, running weekly from Monday to Thursday, a ‘Health & Wellbeing support group’ meet via Zoom every Tuesday between 3-4pm. Whilst a special ‘Furlough Scheme Information session’ meet every Wednesday, also via Zoom, from 11am to 12noon – offering advice to people who can no longer leave the house to work.

Further sessions offering ‘Employment Support’ and ‘Social Interaction’ meet every Thursday, via Zoom between 10-11m and via WhatsApp between 11am and 12noon respectively. There is also a special session called ‘Coronavirus Myth Busters’ run every Tuesday, accessible between 10-11am – again, via Zoom.

All interactive online support services being offered by WLCA can be found on their website, under the ‘COVID19’ tab on the main menu.

With the country on lockdown, the Internet has given community support centres such as WLCA an immediate tool to reach those in need – whilst staying self-isolated and following the social distancing guidelines issued by Public Health England.

About three weeks ago we established our digital World of Work and Wellbeing platform,” explains Iram Fardus – WLCA’s Business Development & Performance Manager, “and through that we are currently supporting our Erdington residents with their health and wellbeing, employment, and housing enquiries.

As an organisation we also understand that people might need help with benefits and financial enquires – so we encourage anyone and everyone to get in touch with us; as an organisation, if we (WLCA) can’t support them then will be able to put them in touch with someone who can.”

Using social media already established in people’s day to day life, the hope is that the familiarity with these platforms will encourage more members of the community to get in touch.

We thought most of the residents would already be connected with platforms like Facebook, Skype, and WhatsApp,” continues Fardus, “on top of that, residents don’t need to pay anything for it… they are free to use and most of the residents already have access to them or they already have accounts.”

But the doors of social engagement swing both ways, and once a week Witton Lodge Community Association’s Employment & Engagement Officer, Dellano Lewis, runs a specially tailored ‘Topical Information Session’, or ‘Live Social’, though the Facebook Live platform. The aims of the interactive online sessions are to both listen to, and direct, the concerns from people across the area.

During these times it’s about thinking of different ways we can communication with the community,” explains Lewis, “with these Facebook Live sessions it’s all about connecting virtually. Now everyone’s at home, we have to tap into a different energy, a different frequency. Live Social is all about sharing positivity, sharing information that people can get through Witton Lodge Community Association.

We’re also connected with a lot of other partners who are working in the Perry Common community, within the Erdington area – so any form of information an individual may require, or want access to, they can get that through Witton Lodge.”

But during these times of social fracture, where tight knit communities such as the one in Perry Common are being forced apart, there are many dangers facing an increasingly isolated community. Finance and employment are certainly pressing concerns, but the mental wellbeing of local residents is also being addressed during the Witton Lodge ‘Live Social’ sessions.

It’s vital (to be connected), it’s something that’s really needed in these times,” tells Lewis, “to have communities and organisations that can offer that kind support – that can reach out to someone who’s self-isolating, to reach out to someone who’s lonely…

It doesn’t matter about background or age, or anything like that; to know that there’s people out there, organisations out there, that can support you during these times – even virtually, over the phone, via Skype, Zoom, any kind of digital platform, is very important.”

Interactive support sessions via social media at Witton Lodge Community Association

Full details of all online support sessions being delivered by Witton Lodge Community Association – and how to access them though the various social media platforms used – can be found via the organisation’s COVID-19 web page at www.wittonlodge.org.uk/covid19-news-information-and-resources/

 

OPINION: Why the NHS should be awarded the George Cross

Words by Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands / Photography courtesy of Andy Street 

As we continue the fight against coronavirus, May 8th has taken on a new significance – as the next date on which the lockdown will be reviewed.  Yet there is other celebration connected to that date – VE Day – which resonates with so much that is going on now.

The 75th anniversary of VE Day may have been disrupted by a new enemy, but it links us to a past generation who faced another great national test.

It was during World War Two that the George Cross was created, to reflect the courage of civilians who showed extraordinary bravery. I believe we are seeing that courage again today. That’s why awarding our NHS staff the George Cross provides appropriate recognition for their incredible efforts.

Recently I was honoured to join HRH Prince William to help officially open the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the NEC. Just a few weeks ago, this was an empty space. Now it is a fully-operational hospital with 500 beds ready to join the fight with COVID-19. It stands as a testament to what we can achieve if we pull together as one. It also represents the respect and gratitude we all feel towards our NHS staff.

The ‘Nightingale’ name above the door also perfectly embodies the driving principles of those who are on the frontline on this crisis – they are saving lives whilst demonstrating care and compassion.

The NHS, from the doctors and nurses on the wards, to the ambulance crews and paramedics, and all support staff, represents the very best of our society.

This crisis has shown, more than ever, the vital importance of a health service that is free at the point of use. Look around the world, at the disjointed approach produced by countries where private healthcare is prevalent, and you can see the true value of our single, united health service.

The nation’s weekly doorstep appreciation of the NHS – where millions of people applaud in support – is proof of the debt of gratitude we all feel.

The NHS reflects so much of the best of British society. The NHS is truly democratic, treating everyone the same. The personal gratitude expressed by the Prime Minister to the nurses and staff who oversaw his recovery from COVID-19 illustrates how the NHS is there for all of us.

The NHS also reflects of the diversity of our modern society. In the crisis, we see the young caring for the old, and we also see retired doctors and nurses returning to join the fight. We see NHS staff from all backgrounds and from across the globe helping the people of the UK.

Right now, the NHS is also hugely important to the health of our economy. As we try to protect business through the duration of the crisis, the NHS is a huge employer that simply keeps going.

Of course, as an institution, the NHS needs care and investment. Prior to the outbreak, the Government unveiled a huge programme of future investment, but now, as we fight this virus, our focus is rightly being placed on the here and now. Some areas are clearly not as good as we want – such as the continuing issue of PPE.

We see now, more than ever, how the NHS is the embodiment of British society. And it is the NHS staff, putting themselves at risk daily, who have become our modern heroes and heroines. That is why I believe the George Cross is an appropriate acknowledgment of the bravery we are seeing.

This is not a gimmick. These awards exist to allow us, as a society, to recognise those who have stepped forward in a time of need.

These are unprecedented times, but awarding this medal collectively, to thousands of people for their joint bravery, has been done before.

In 1942 The George Cross was awarded to the island of Malta by King George, so as to “bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people” during the great siege they underwent in the early part of the Second World War.

Six years after Malta was awarded the George Cross, the NHS was born. Now, after seven decades of devoted service to the British people, our NHS staff now find themselves under siege too, from coronavirus. There is no doubt in my mind that this is their finest hour.

It is time to reflect the unique contribution to our society of the NHS, and the gallantry shown by its staff. The National Health Service has earned the George Cross.

Andy Street is the Mayor of the West Midlands. For more on Andy Street, visit www.wmca.org.uk/who-we-are/meet-the-mayor/

FEATURE: Staying home for Easter – how Eastern Europeans in Erdington celebrate Easter during the coronavirus crisis

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics courtesy of individuals featured

We were not guaranteed a future in this country,” Laszlo Molnars tells Erdington Local, via an international a phone call.

It has been several weeks since Laszlo left the UK, making the decision to take his family back to Hungary as countries across mainland Europe were taking themselves into lockdown – with Britain being one of the last on the list. “It was a big decision for us to leave the UK so soon…” sighs Lazlo, “but we are happy to be somewhere we feel safe.”

Erdington is home to many Eastern Europeans, a vibrant Diaspora who have built families, businesses, and lives in the North East Birmingham constituency. Predominately Christian by faith, Easter would normally see with many returning to their countries of origin – celebrating the festive period with their wider families and communities.

But due to the coronavirus global pandemic, and the restrictions of travel – both domestic and international – that have been enforced across the world, this Spring’s festive repatriation has raised difficult questions for many families. Laszlo and his family are now back in Hungary, but what about those who stayed in the UK?

I planned to go to Poland for Easter with my daughter,” explains Anna Fijałkowska, 34, who was unable to see her family or do the things she would normally do at Easter, “I would go to Poland and spend Easter with my family, mother, sister and grandmother.” Like many of the over 800,00 Polish people living in the UK, Anna desired to return – preferring the quicker response by the Polish government to the original ‘herd immunity’ promulgated by the UK administration.

But it is still Easter. And Wielki Post (Holy Week) is still a big deal, especially in a predominantly Catholic country like Poland. “I could not go to church for Palm Sunday,” continues Anna, “I could not go to get my basket blessed.” With all the religious rituals on hold in the UK, this time of year would seem very alien for people like Anna.

But despite all these complications Anna remains positive, finding delight at spending so much quality time with her daughter – even in the shadow of something so nasty: “I think the time of this virus is a very special time for us which shows us that we should focus more on building family relationships. I still prepared all the foods that I would at Easter.” Biała kiełbasa [smoked meats], Mazurek [Easter cakes] and of course, pisanki [Easter eggs] all take centre stage in Polish households, although this year without being taken to church for a blessing.

With an established Polish community in Erdington and across Birmingham, St Michael’s Church and the Polish Millennium Centre serving as focal points, for some Eastern Europeans their whole life is here already. Atanas Slavchev or ‘Nasko’, 34, moved to Erdington from Bulgaria six years ago.

Happy Easter!” he exclaims over the phone. Most Bulgarians would celebrate Easter on 19th April – like with most other Orthodox countries, Eastern European Christianity follows the Julian calendar, meaning common religious festivals can be held at different times in different countries.

Every day is Easter,” explains Nasko, “as Christ is risen. But we celebrate it especially today, like the Orthodox.” Nasko’s family are not orthodox, but rather part of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) church in Erdington – home to a lively evangelical band, called El Shaddai. Somewhat unlike the Orthodox style a capella chants, it’s not your typical Bulgarian affair; this time of year would still have been a time of jubilation.

Similar themes of religious celebration, gathering of families and unique cuisine, rise from Nasko’s conversation: Kozunak [Easter bread], Lamb dishes [reflecting the ‘lamb of God’], and, eggs [which they paint] define the taste and style of Easter for Bulgarians.

But there is disappointment, “our kids were rehearsing hard for the Easter play, but they can’t do that now.” Another cancelled event for Nasko’s family.

He and his wife run Sofia, a Bulgarian food and convenience store on Tyburn Road. Their wider family in Erdington numbers around 70 – uncles, aunties and cousins included – and they’ve kept Sofia open, catering to the Bu;garian community but also for non-Bulgarians who have caught on that these shops still have pasta and flour during the coronavirus crisis – only the writing is in another language.

It’s still important to Nasko and his family to visit their home country, but he predicts they won’t get time this year due to complications from the global pandemic, “we wanted to go to Bulgaria but we may end up just going to Cornwall for our holiday.”

Ramona Petrescu, 26, is not with any family this Easter. She moved to the UK about five years ago to improve her English and meet new people – working in factory jobs, alongside some translation work, and selling her wares as an artist and crafter.

Lamb dishes, Pască [Romanian Easter bread] and ‘ouă incondeiate’ [decorated eggs] also define this time for Romanians, which, like Bulgaria, is a mostly orthodox country. But it has been hard for Ramona to get into the Easter spirit at all – even whist not being religious, this time is still a marked celebration in her year.

The usual excitement for the day has definitely gone”, explains Ramona, “I am definitely less upbeat and more into introspection and peace of heart and mind, while I find myself far away from what I ‘ve known to be comfortable in Romania”. Ramona wanted to paint eggs but didn’t finds she have the will or the time this year.

Although on Easter Sunday, Ramona treated herself to ‘ouă umplute’ (devilled eggs) which she assures was a “great Romanian invention.”

With thanks to Magdalena and Oksana from the Polish Expats Association for assistance with research. For more on the Polish Expats Association, visit www.facebook.com/polish.expats